Geographic Information Systems (GIS) may serve a minor role in legacy 911 systems, but it will be an integral part of the next-generation technologies. The sooner 911 professionals realize this and start preparing, the smoother their transition to a next-generation 911 system will be, according to panelists at the recent Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference.

“In the legacy 911 world, many of us felt that GIS was the map that was on our screen, and as long as the map was there and the roads were connected, we were happy with that,” said Sean Petty, director of technology practice at Mission Critical Partners and a former public-safety answering point (PSAP) director. “GIS, to some PSAPs, was a supporting application.

“As we shift focus to the future, GIS will become the hero in the next-generation 911 world and the basis for a lot of what happens. It’s really shifting the role from being a supporting role to being perhaps the heart and soul of call routing and many of the other functions. We’re shifting into this hugely geospatial world.”

But the role GIS will play does not begin and end with call routing, said Anna Hastings of AT&T. GIS also will help with location validation—similar to what the Master Street Address Guide (MSAG) does for legacy 911—and determining the appropriate responding agencies, she said.

“GIS becomes absolutely critical and foundational as we move into the future,” Hastings said.

Petty recommended that PSAP leaders—even those who aren’t actively planning for next-gen 911 migration—begin communicating with their GIS professionals now in preparation for an eventual transition. Those conversations should include the role of GIS in next-gen 911, National Emergency Number Association (NENA) standards and data synchronization.

Failing to take this step could result in unexpected roadblocks later, when network deployment is underway. Petty described GIS data integration as one of the more challenging parts of a NG 911 migration.

“I can’t say it enough,” Petty said. “It is a shifting mindset from today, where we are with GIS being a supporting role, to the future, where the changes made by the GIS professionals are going to have a profound impact on the operation of our 911 centers and call routing.

“Start early.”

The data-reconciliation process also will likely take longer than expected, which is another reason to start early, says Chad Brothers, client services manager with TeleCommunication Systems (TCS). Building a well-integrated dataset with surrounding jurisdictions is an important part of that process.

“The higher the quality of your data, the better data that your call-takers are going to get when the time comes for a 911 call to be delivered,” Brothers said. “Make sure you plan it early into your integration. Don’t wait until the tail end, when you actually think you’re going to need it, because then it will take you much longer to get it ready.”